by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Baylor has lost the magic of wondrous QB Robert Griffin III. But don’t expect the Green and Gold to drop to its former pre-Art Briles level. Briles, who resurrected the program at Houston before being lured to Baylor, now has things “going on” in Waco. Long a second/third-tier program in the Big 12, BU has built strongly on the foundation established by Briles and then greatly accelerated by 2011 Heisman Trophy-winning QB “RG3.”

Thanks to the Briles-engineered re-birth of the Bears, a new riverside stadium is on the way in Waco, complete with a pedestrian bridge connecting the proposed 45,000-seat facility to campus. The facility will also feature a mooring area for the leisure privileged who prefer to take a boat cruise on the Brazos River to get to the game. More importantly, Briles has steadily improved the Baylor reputation and brand among the scores of talented high school players in Texas. He has already lured several high-quality transfers to Waco, and the never-say-die Briles has boosted BU’s recruiting to a level that offers the promise of a top-25 class in 2013. Not bad for what was the only private institution in the state-university-dominated Big 12 until TCU joined this year.

Although Briles still has major issues with his defense (37.2 ppg and 489 ypg allowed in 2011), the attacking Baylor offense (45.3 ppg, 587 ypg last season) should still be plenty prolific.

First of all, Briles has an experienced QB in sr. Nick Florence (right) to take over for Griffin in directing Baylor’s big-play, uptempo, spread offense. Florence (62% career passer, 1992 yards, 8 TDs, but 9 ints.) made seven starts in 2009 after Griffin suffered a knee injury. Florence, considered one of the team’s strongest leaders, was redshirting last season with the expectation of having two years of eligibility remaining after 2011. However, when Griffin was banged up for a while in the second half of last year’s Game 11 vs. high-scoring Texas Tech at Cowboys Stadium, Florence sacrificed one of those years, warming up quickly and then throwing two TDP in a 66-42 victory. With seven starts and three years as a backup under his belt, Florence gave every sign with a strong spring he is more than ready to take over the Bears’ passing game. However, he does not offer the escapability of RG3. (Very few do).

Bullish RB Terrance Ganaway (1547 YR in 2011) has moved on the to NFL, but there’s talent and depth at RB available in the form of sr. Jarred Salubi and Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk, a five-star speedster from Temple, TX who got caught in the blowback from the Willie Lyles scandal in Eugene. Judging from the recent explosive RBs at Oregon (LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas), Seastrunk appears to have a bright future in Briles’ version of the spread. The middle of the Bears’ OL (C and both Gs) returns. The new starting Ts will be young, but athletic 6-6, 305 RS frosh Spencer Drango has been groomed to take over at the vital LT spot.

2011's quick-strike WR Kendall Wright (108 recs., 1663 yards, 14 TDs last year) is now a member of the Tennessee Titans. But established wideout threats return in the persons of Terrance Williams (left; 59 recs., 11 TDs), Tevin Reese (51 recs.), and Lanear Sampson (42 recs.). Plus, RS frosh Jay Lee has flashed excellent potential, while true freshman Corey Coleman will be trying to add his speed to the lineup. As a TE/slot receiver, there’s 6-6, 260 jr. Jordan Najvar (15 recs. LY), who began his career at TE-rich Stanford. Baylor seems primed to light the scoreboard again this season.

However, the dreaded nightmare thought persists that—without Griffin dominating matters on offense—the Baylor defense might be even worse than 2011's rankings of 118th vs. the pass, 102nd vs. the run, and 116th (of 120) overall. The always-optimistic Briles thinks not, as the Green and Gold will be in the second year of their spread-offense-countering 4-2-5 scheme, directed by experienced coordinator Phil Bennett. Says Briles, “I see improvement, without question. You can’t buy experience.” The HC won’t have to buy much of that element in the secondary, where all four starters return after being peppered repeatedly last season. CBs K.J. Morton (4 ints. LY) & Joe Williams are now experienced juniors and should provide tighter coverage. Junior S Sam Holl (113 Ts) and senior S Mike Hicks (105 Ts) should show greater anticipation. Plus, there’s valuable nickel-back Ahmad Dixon (89 Ts, 1 int., 3 fumble recoveries). There’s hope for improvement at LB, where 235-pound soph Bryce Hager beat out returning sr. Rodney Chadwick in the middle, and talented early enrollee juco Eddie Lackey captured the outside spot in the 4-2. True frosh LB Brian Nance is a high school All-American who typifies the improving Baylor recruiting.

The big problem last season—and the biggest question in 2012—entails the defensive front. After the loss of big DT Phil Taylor (a transfer from Penn State) to the NFL prior to 2011, Baylor collected only 19 sacks last season, when a converted DE and a former walk-on often started in the middle up front. This year, sr. Nick Johnson (an OLman in JC) and sr. Kaeron Johnson (often a blocking FB in the past) are penciled in as the starting DTs, backed up by RS frosh. So, while there’s a little more depth, Briles is still looking for some impact in the interior. There is some hope at DE, where returnees Terrence Lloyd, Gary Mason Jr., and Chris McAllister totaled 6½ sacks in 2011. In August, highly-touted DE Javonte Magee arrives with the promise of joining the DL rotation as a true freshman.

It wasn’t noticed much when the electric RG3 was around, but kicker Aaron Jones connected on a below-average 10 of 17 FG attempts last season. And BU’s lack of overall defensive depth showed up frequently in poor punt and kick coverage.

Summary...Baylor (which won its last six games in 2011) opens the season with games against SMU, Sam Houston State, and La.-Monroe, giving new starting QB Nick Florence a chance to get a firm grip on the offense. But Game Four for the Bears involves a perilous trip to Morgantown, where West Virginia will be making its Big 12 Conference debut. Then come back-to-back games vs. revenge-seeking TCU and Texas. Florence has given every indication he will perform at a high level. But marked improvement for the Baylor defense that last year gave up more than 40 points five times and held only three teams (S.F. Austin, Iowa State, and Texas) to less than 30 remains inconclusive. A duplication of last year’s 10-3 mark seems extremely unlikely. But a third straight bowl for the Green and Gold is in store, and that’s good news for a program that went 16 years without a sniff of the postseason until 2010.

Note: With RG III running and throwing, and with the Baylor defense resembling a sieve the last two seasons, the Bears were 11-1 “over” in 2011, and 18-3 “over” their last 21 "totals" decisions.


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